For fans of the acclaimed comedy quartet The League of Gentlemen, it has been 12 long years waiting for their joint return to the live stage.
But after a well-received return to television last December with three special episodes, Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are heading back to their roots with a 31-date theatre and arena tour.
The group have strong links to the area, having all met while studying drama at the now-defunct Bretton Hall College of Education in Wakefield. Dyson, who helps write the show but stays off-stage due to a self-confessed lack of acting skills, grew up in Leeds and lives in Ilkley, while Reece Shearsmith is originally from Hull.
Their tour will include two performances at the First Direct Arena in Leeds on August 31 and September 15, York Barbican on August 22 and Hull Bonus Arena on September 4.
Focusing on the weird and wonderful inhabitants of Royston Vasey, whose motto is ‘You’ll never leave’, the new tour will bring back to life dozens of quirky, strange and often quite scary characters who have become part of popular culture since their screen debuts back in 1999.
Between them, the four men have enjoyed enormous success with other projects since The League of Gentlemen’s original run finished back in 2002, but they say it has been a fantastic experience venturing back to the world of Royston Vasey together.
Gatiss explains: “The lovely thing is we are doing it because we want to do it and not because we have to do it. Many reunions tend to be for the money and have a sense of desperation about them. But this isn’t like that. We have talked for ages about doing something again because we never split up. We just stopped doing it. So it’s very special to be doing it with a happy heart rather than a sense of obligation.”
Pemberton adds: “The extraordinary thing is we were all friends before any of this even existed. It’s all grown out of our friendship. The fact that we are able to keep working together, having known each other for 30 years is very moving. A lot of people don’t get to do that.”
Shearsmith says one of the pleasures of the tour will be the chance for the long-standing friends to spend time together again. “We really enjoy each other’s company. These days we don’t get to spend as much time together as we would like. But I never laugh more than when I’m with these guys. It’s great to be able to keep that going through our work.”
Dyson says writing for the stage is a different discipline to scripting the show for television.
“What I’ve always loved about the live shows and what still defines them now is the rigour and discipline that they impose on the writing. From the very beginning, we had a rule that only one prop or item of clothing was allowed to define a character. When we started in the mid-1990s with a residency at the Canal Cafe Theatre in London, it had a tiny dressing room, so everything had to go in a carrier bag. That meant you really had to think about the character when writing it.”
Shearsmith says their work as The League of Gentlemen lends itself to live performances.
“The League of Gentlemen was never better than when it was live. The thing that surprised people was the theatricality of it. It was properly thrilling to be in the audience. There was such horror and silence and awkwardness – which were then broken by laughter. We managed to manipulate the audience into feeling really uncomfortable and then breaking it with a big laugh. It was palpably brilliant when we had those moments.”
Pemberton adds: “It’s not like the show was conceived as a TV programme. We won’t have to scratch our heads and think, ‘How are we going to do this live?’ These characters started when we walked out on stage saying things like, “Okey cokey, pig in a pokey.” The live show is simply going back to our roots.”
Gatiss says plenty of preparation is going into making the live production work. “A big thing for us has always been really rehearsing it well and creating a great show. People remember both our previous tours very fondly – and you can’t say that about everything you do.
“It was just a really good night out. We want to try and do that again.”
Shearsmith says: “When we first started discussing what a League of Gentleman revival would look like, we came up with lots of clever-clever ideas. But in the end, we decided the best way to bring it back was as if it had never been away. It was just on again. That’s what it feels like. We hope that the live show will communicate that feeling of men in their 50s having the time of their lives jumping around on stage in silly costumes.”
The tour begins in Torquay on August 11 and travels across the UK until September 29. Gatiss says: “These characters have endured so well because people have remained really fond of them. That is such a thrill for us. The fans are really excited to meet these characters again that they haven’t seen for 15 years.
“It’s wonderful. Frequently the best part of it all is seeing the audience.”
Jeremy Dyson says there are no current plans for the group to work together once again.
“We did this in the first instance to stop people asking when we were coming back! So we have no immediate plans for another reunion. We just want to enjoy this tour.”
He adds: “I hope the show will revive The League of Gentlemen in people’s hearts. It’s lovely that it’s still so alive and vital after all this time. It’s hard to think of a precedent in comedy where you come back after such a long time and the show still has such life.”